The Language of Youth Empowerment

By Kumera Genet, Former Urban Alliance Program Coordinator

I don't remember the exact breakdown of the vote, but the verdict was clear. My group of approximately 30 Urban Alliance Interns no longer wanted to be referred to as a "caseload." This wasn't a point of contention or derision, it was simply a deviation from our workshop topic that became an extended conversation. By this point in the year, the students were especially aware of the power of language, and names are important. We agreed that "cohort" or "group" sounded better and that was what I called them for the remainder of the program. It was fun and one of my favorite days as a Program Coordinator (PC). I felt that the quality and honesty of the communication in the Urban Alliance program empowered our students and promoted agency in their decision making.

The Sapir Worf hypothesis suggests that language helps to shape the way we perceive reality and can influence our thought process. For many readers, the phrase "the Beltway" is associated with Washington, D.C., and "downtown" is connected with a visual of the shiny glass facades of buildings on M and K Street, where a large number of the Urban Alliance Interns work.

Many areas of Washington, D.C. are described in ways that don't accurately reflect the true character of the residents, but are still applied indiscriminately. Unfortunately, these descriptions sometimes lead to lower expectations of D.C. youth and internalized self-doubt for some of the new students we meet during recruitment. This is why one of the first lessons that Interns complete during Urban Alliance's pre-work orientation is the "30 second commercial," or elevator speech. Within weeks, we push students to use detailed language so that they can be identified by their interests, experience and future plans -- rather than a reputation that was determined before they were born.

Over the course of the year, this positive terminology is expanded intentionally through regular one on one conversation, emails, networking events, and professional workshops. Students can ask for advice about the appropriate way to request an informational interview, or how to say they are busy at work and can't take on more tasks. I can remember quick side huddles with Interns at networking events to brainstorm questions, or recall names of presenters. As a program, we worked to ensure that students had the language to navigate diverse environments and that the language would accurately display their professional qualities.

In workshops, we created a safe space for ideas and candor. Urban Alliance cares about feedback from our participants. At times we challenged them, and endlessly asked for more detail in verbal responses, but we also welcomed the same in return. No one could slide by with a weak answer and neither could I. In one good natured exchange about professional attire, a student asked me," Is it unprofessional, or do you just not like it?". As our group relationship developed, the communication in our workshops regularly reached a level of clarity that was at times hard to attain outside of the program.

After a couple of months, language became the main instrument of each Intern's ambition or resiliency. The senior year of high school is full of opportunities, significant decisions, and incredibly important deadlines. It was great to see the Interns use their professional vocabulary to schedule college tours, advocate for new projects in their jobs, make repeated calls to Financial Aid offices, and no longer fear interviews. This was evidence of the self-sufficiency that we strived to develop in the program. We were happy to see the interns individually give slide presentations on their work experience at year's end, and even happier that they could transfer the bullet points directly to their resume.